Cloth Diapering Children with Special Needs

Cloth Diapering Children with Special Needs

Executive Director's Note: I've had the opportunity to work with Catherine Bolden, of The Willow Store, on several RDA projects, and have found her to be consistently willing and helpful.  I finally had the opportunity to meet her in person at the Real Diaper Industry Association annual meeting this fall.  Talking with her, I realized she had a lot of insight into a subject we don't hear much about - cloth diapering children with special needs.  I asked her to write about the subject for our blog, and she, as usual, willingly supplied this useful piece.

Cloth diapering can be a rewarding positive change for your children, the environment, and your family’s budget. The benefits of reusable diapers and training pants are quite numerous, from the soft, gentle fabrics that are amazingly absorbent and come in an assortment of fun colors to less rash and fewer chemicals your child is exposed to, there’s no shortage of reasons why cloth is the natural choice for diapering your baby. The savings alone can be astounding... When comparing the average costs of disposable diapers, you can save well over $2,000 or more per child just by switching to reusables.

What if your child has special needs?

With the frequency of things like Autism, Downs Syndrome and more on the rise, diapering children with special needs is a topic worth considering.  All of the great benefits of reusables still matter, if not more so, when working with a child with special needs. From extra sensitive skin to food intolerances and more, diapering a child with special needs can be a challenge. Adding in the cost of disposables for not just the 2-3 year average, but for an undisclosed length of time, and you don’t even want to think about how much disposables will add up to. My Ben just, finally, has mastered this potty training thing, and a week before he turned 6.

Had we gone the route of disposables, we could have bought a new car for same amount we would have spent on diapers. That’s no small change.


I am a mom to four children, and I began my cloth diapering journey more than 8 years ago. My second, Ben, was born two years later, and he has Downs Syndrome. Since I cloth diapered my first, I had everything I needed to diaper my son, which we did. Even before he was born, we knew he was going to be different than the average child. He would learn at a different pace, take longer to do things that often come easy for other children, like sitting, crawling, walking and more. Many things were a challenge for him, right from the start. We didn’t have the easiest of time learning these new things about him, and spent a lot of time in the hospital, helping him to recover from surgeries and an assortment of other health concerns.

We cloth diapered, it was natural for us, and I thought nothing of it. It wasn’t really until Ben hit that magic age of 2-3, when we would have otherwise started to potty train, that I began to understand the difference in cloth diapering a child with special needs. He was nowhere near ready to learn this new thing! Despite the ever so helpful comments from less understanding family members, I was not putting this off, and I knew my son. Ben was not at a point in his life where figuring out the potty was even on his radar, he was just learning how to walk and thinking about talking. All I knew was it was going to be a while. I couldn’t plan when, just not now. As much as I love cloth diapers, not having to deal with diapers at all is an even better option!

Now I don’t want to imply that I know everything about what it’s like to diaper a child with special needs, but I do know what my experiences have been. I know that every child is different, and will learn the potty thing at their own pace.  When dealing with a child that has special needs, whether they are physical, developmental, behavioral, or a combination of factors, learning the art of the potty is often an extended, drawn out process that may not even begin for several years after the average child has mastered the same skill.

Special Needs, Special Cloth Diapering Needs

Kids with different needs, especially developmental delays, their brains and bodies just develop at a different pace than average need kids. They often need more repetition to learn the same things. For instance, if an average child could learn how to drink from a sippy cup within a few tries, it may take weeks, or longer, of practicing for a special needs child to figure it out, let alone convince his body to listen. So with potty training, it is even more important that the child wear diapers or training pants that are easy to manipulate, that can be pulled on and off without a lot of fuss, and that they feel wetness when they go. Being consistent is crucial to building the habits of potty learning.

The biggest diapering challenge for children with special needs is the size. Also, some children have additional needs such as needing a diapering product that works with lower levels of coordination or lower muscle tone, so if the child is trying to pull up the diaper/trainer independently, it has to be flexible enough to do this, but still fit well. Some children with reduced motor control may be able to work with simply larger diapers, but the ability to snap off in case of an accident is an invaluable asset.

Given the length of time that a child with extra needs will be wearing diapers/trainers, having a solution that lasts longer than one size is extremely valuable. This is the driving force behind our One-size training pants. With special elastic for adjusting the sizing internally and hidden from curious fingers, the trainers fit from 20 to 50+ pounds, yet are easy enough to adjust to get the best fit. And with Ben, we had plenty of opportunities to test them out!  They have been a lifesaver and helped us immensely to move from the diapers for an older child stage into the independence of trainers and finally the joy of being fully trained!

Note: the time in which to start cloth diapering can be different than those without extra needs. Most parents begin cloth from an early age, in hopes to recoup the most savings. With special needs, you have a greater opportunity in which to start reusables and still save a ton of money.

Whatever your personal reasons for cloth diapering, whether you have a child with special needs or not, whether you do cloth full time or not, every diaper change makes a difference, for your child, the environment, and your budget

-- Catherine Bolden, The Willow Store, RDA member

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